All About Chinese New Year

It’s almost Chinese New Year!

This year, the lunar new year falls on February 16th. 2018 is the year of the dog, according to the Chinese zodiac, which repeats every twelve years.

Even though China is beginning to incorporate more and more Western customs and holidays, Chinese New Year is still the most important celebration by far. This is a holiday centered around family – an opportunity to celebrate all of the great events of the past year, and wishing for good fortune in the year to come.

CELEBRATIONS

Chinese New Year is typically celebrated for fifteen days, from New Year’s Eve to the Lantern Festival.

Timeline of traditional Chinese New Year customs
Pre-New Year’s Preparations

  • Cleaning the House – A thorough cleaning of the house is done in preparation for the New Year. It represents a wish to put away old things, say farewell to the previous year, and welcome the New Year.
  • New Year Shopping – This is the time that people buy food, snacks, decorations, and clothes before New Year’s Eve. Right before Chinese New Year, like Christmas in the U.S., is prime shopping season.
  • Putting Up Spring Couplets – Spring couplets are paired phrases, typically of seven Chinese characters each, written on red paper in black ink, and pasted one each side of the door frame. The couplets are filled with best wishes, and is thought to keep evil away.
New Year’s Eve

  • Decorating – Most people decorate their houses on New Year’s Eve. Common decorations used include red lanterns, red couplets, New Year paintings, and red lanterns.
  • Reunion Dinner – The New Year’s Eve feast is the most important event, with all family members reuniting, often having to travel long distances. People from north and south China eat different foods on this special occasion, although a few symbolic dishes are usually included.
  • CCTV New Year Gala – It has become a China custom for many families to watch the CCTV New Year Gala on New Year’s Eve. The show starts at 8 pm and ends at midnight when the New Year arrives, featuring traditional, folk, and pop performances from China’s best singers, dancers, and acrobats
  • Red Envelopes – Red envelopes filled with money are usually given to kids after the reunion dinner, wishing them health, growth, and good studies in the coming year. Money in red envelopes is believed to bring good luck, as red is China’s lucky color.
  • Staying Up Late – This custom is called shǒu suì (守岁); to keep watch over the year. In the past, Chinese people stayed up all night, but now, most stay up only until the midnight firecrackers and fireworks die down.

 

New Year’s Day

  • Setting Off Firecrackers and Fireworks – The moment the New Year arrives, there is a cacophony of fireworks and firecrackers all around, even in rural China. You might want to use earplugs!
  • Putting on New Clothes and Extending New Year Greetings – On the first day of the New Year, it is traditional to put on new clothes, and say “gōng xǐ” (恭喜) to wish each other good luck and happiness in the New Year. It is customary for the younger generation to visit their elders, and wish them health and longevity. In more recent years, particularly among the younger generation, those who don’t have time to visit their friends or relatives send a New Year’s card, a WeChat red envelope or a text message instead.
  • Watching Lion and Dragon Dances – Lion dances and dragon dances might be seen too on New Year’s Day in parades.
New Year: Day 2-7
  • Visiting Friends and Family – This is the time people spend visiting with friends and family during the celebration.
New Year: Day 8
  • Returning to Work – 8 is the luckiest number in China, so most businesses prefer to reopen on day eight of the New Year.
New Year: Day 15

  • Lantern Festival – This marks the end of the Spring Festival celebrations. People send aloft glowing lanterns into the sky while others let floating lanterns go in the sea, on rivers, or set them adrift in lakes. This is also when tang yuan are eaten.

SYMBOLISM

The Chinese commonly incorporate symbolism and homophones into their traditions and superstitious beliefs. For example, the unlucky number in China is the number 4 (四 sì) because the word is a homophone with the word death (死 sǐ). There are a number of these examples associated with Chinese New Year.

Fish

Fish is a staple on dinner tables during Chinese New Year, usually cooked whole. The word for fish (鱼 yú) is a homonym for the word surplus (余 yú), and a common sentiment spoken during this holiday is “surplus/fish year after year” (年年有余/鱼 nián nián yǒu yú). It is also tradition to have fish left over, to symbolize the surplus, especially in the head and tail (hope that the year will start and end with surplus).

Dumplings
Homemade dumplings and dumpling skins

Chinese dumplings are made with dough, rolled into skins, and filled with a variety of meats and vegetables. They are typically boiled, steamed, or pan fried. The shape of the dumplings resemble ingots, an ancient Chinese currency used as early as the Han dynasty. They are eaten during the New Year as a symbol of prosperity and wealth.

Try this recipe for vegan Chinese-style dumplings!

Tang Yuan

Tang yuan are made from glutinous rice flour filled with sesame or red bean paste and served in the sweet broth that they are cooked in. Traditionally, they are eaten at the end of the celebrations, during the Lantern Festival. They symbolize family reunion, as their name is a homophone for reunion, and their round shape symbolizes togetherness.

Here is a vegan-friendly recipe if you want to attempt to make these delicious sticky balls on your own. They are also be purchased frozen at Asian markets, if you want to save time and effort.

Nian Gao

The literal translation of nian gao is “year cake (年糕),” and it is used to symbolize prosperity. Gāo can also mean tall (高), so nian gao also refers to ‘getting higher year on year’, and this symbolizes raising oneself taller (in wealth) in each coming year. Follow this  recipe to make this sticky sweet treat.

Fu

The word 福fú means good fortune in Chinese. The 福 sign upside down is translated to 福倒了 fú dào le, which also sounds like 福到了fú dào le (good fortune has arrived).

Evolution of Chinese Food in America

There are over 45,000 Chinese restaurants in the U.S. That’s more than McDonald’s, Burger King, and KFC combined. The majority of these restaurants offer very similar looking and tasting food, even though these restaurants are independently owned and operated.

I grew up in a household where my mother only cooked Chinese food. However, most of these dishes were nothing like the most popular dishes ordered at Chinese takeout restaurants. As Jennifer Lee explains in The Fortune Cookie Chronicles,

“As a child, I never considered it strange that the food we ordered from Chinese restaurants didn’t quite resemble my mom’s home cooking. My mom used white rice, soy sauce, garlic, scallions, and a wok. But she never deep-fried chunks of meat, succulent and soft, then drenched them with rich, flavorful sauce. She cooked with ingredients that were pickled and dried and of strange shapes and never appeared on the takeout menu.”

The assimilation of Chinese immigrants into American culture is not exactly a happy story. It’s also a story that not many people are familiar with.

In the 19th century, the people in China faced an onslaught of hardships, including natural disasters, war, overpopulation, and the financial burdens brought on by Western Imperialism. When the news of gold in California reached China, the decision to travel halfway around the world was even more enticing. After the Chinese people arrived in San Francisco, Americans did not know what to make of them. They wore long braids, spoke a strange language, ate foods Westerners had never encountered, and had terrible table manners (they eat with sticks!). Chinese cuisine comprised of many animals that Americans deemed repulsive, and an image of a rat-eating Chinese man was featured in school textbooks in the late 1800s. Advertisements also used anti-Chinese sentiments as a means to sell their products.

As more Chinese people arrived looking for work, the negative perceptions of them increased. This led to countless lynchings, shootings, and arson, targeted at the ethnic group. The Chinese Exclusion Act was passed in 1882, which restricted Chinese immigration and prevented Chinese arrivals from becoming naturalized citizens. This is the only law passed in American history to exclude a group by race or ethnicity. As the doors were closed to Chinese immigration, and jobs in agriculture, mining, and manufacturing were taken back by the Americans, the Chinese already living in America had to find an alternative way to make a living. Their solution was opening up laundries and restaurants. The number of Chinese-owned restaurants and laundries flourished in the late 1800s, particularly on the west coast. Because cleaning and cooking were both considered women’s work,  American laborers did not feel threatened.

In the Chinese restaurants, the food served was not the same food that Chinese people ate themselves. They served food that was exotic but not scary. The most well-known dish was chop suey, which consists of meat, a thick sauce, and Asian vegetables (bean sprouts, water chestnuts, celery, cabbage). Many Americans believed this was a signature Chinese dish, but it was invented and served exclusively overseas. The name of the dish translates literally to “odds and ends” in Cantonese. There are a few theories about how the dish came about but no documented proof. Although the dish is becoming lesser known over time, being replaced by other Americanized Chinese dishes such as General Tso’s chicken, it paved the way and popularized American-friendly Chinese food.

Chop Suey

Due to the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882-1943), immigration from China was non-existent and the chop suey phase lasted for many decades. The borders finally reopened in 1943, but laws didn’t become more lenient until 1965. New styles of Chinese cuisine were introduced – Szechuan and Hunan. People living in these two regions of China typically enjoy dishes that are flavorful and very spicy. However, the people who were cooking these types of food were mostly from Taiwan and Hong Kong, known for their lighter and sweeter dishes. So the end result was a mashup of Taiwanese food, with inspiration from Szechuan and Hunan, using ingredients familiar to American palates that often didn’t exist in China. That is how the deep fried, sweet and spicy dishes we know and love originally found its way onto Chinese menus. None of these dishes were “authentic,” but new immigrants opening Chinese restaurants copied what seemed to be working and these similar tasting dishes with the same names materialized all over the United States.

In the early 2000s, other Asian ethnicities (Thai, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese) with more “authentic” menus flooded urban cities, giving adventurous eaters some alternatives to the well-loved Americanized Chinese food. In recent years, first and second generation Chinese-Americans have embraced their roots and opened up restaurants featuring true Chinese cuisine, such as hand pulled noodles, steamed buns, and whole fish. Fusion cuisine has also taken off, combining both Asian and European styles to create an entirely new category of dishes.

How Chinese food will evolve from this point on, no one knows. The possibilities are endless!

 

✿ Katie ✿